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UFT retirees at the twilight of Shankerism

Hakan Yilmaz explains the significance of the recent defeat of the United Federation of Teachers’ Unity Caucus in the wake of its decades-long hegemony.

A new turning point is emerging in U.S. labor politics as the Unity Caucus, which governed the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) since its first election in 1962, has experienced its first major defeat. The union’s retiree chapter, made up of around 70,000 members, elected Unity’s opponent, Retiree Advocate, as its chapter leaders.

Unlike other teacher unions, retirees play an exceptional role inside the UFT. Even as schools have deteriorated under neoliberal education reforms supported by Unity leaders, the caucus’s dominance in the retiree chapter sustained its long lasting hegemony. In the union’s 2022 leadership elections, Unity won 71 percent of the retiree vote. In contrast, in this year’s retiree chapter elections Retiree Advocate won 63 percent against Unity’s 37. This drastic shift was driven by UFT president Michael Mulgrew’s attempts to cut healthcare for retirees by shifting to a Medicare Advantage privatization scheme.

The retirees’ abandonment of Unity took place alongside a growing movement of paraprofessionals fighting for a living wage. The Fix Para Pay slate won their election with an even bigger margin than the retirees. These developments indicate a potential for ending Unity’s reign in next year’s union officer elections. A change of leadership inside the UFT could lead to major shifts in its affiliates as the UFT remains the largest local inside the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Unity’s legacy

The UFT’s impregnable system of caucus-based domination was built by Albert Shanker after he took over the union in 1964. Through Unity, Shanker shaped the UFT in his own image and moved on to remake the AFT through a series of bureaucratic moves, militant business unionism, and allying with neoconservatives. The caucus and the national network that emerged from it remained the core element of Shanker’s dominance within the AFT. While Shanker died in 1997, his legacy survived through the policies of his handpicked successors, Sandra Feldman and Randi Weingarten, both of whom continued to enable neoliberal school reforms that hurt public schools and teachers.

In 1975, during New York’s budget crisis, when Shanker was the president of both the UFT and the AFT, the school district laid off tens of thousands of teachers and imposed major cuts on much of the public sector. Shanker was pressured into a strike against the cuts but quickly called  it off and agreed to bail out the city with the union’s pension fund to get teachers rehired. Shanker’s bailing out of teachers with their own pension money in the face of cuts emboldened reactionary forces and contributed to the emergence of neoliberal hegemony that brought more cuts for decades to come.

Unlike the vast majority of teachers in the United States, Shanker quickly embraced the outlook of the Nation at Risk report in 1983, which shifted the blame for poor educational performance to teachers and working-class students instead of the injustices in school funding and governance. Shanker was an early proponent of reforms such as school choice, charter schools, standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, and watering down of tenure protections, all of which ended up weakening teacher unions. Shanker supported these reforms under the premise of promoting educational “excellence.” The emphasis on excellence served to cover up the poverty and de facto racial segregation that remained intact across most of the U.S. education system after the rollback of integration policies in the 1970s.

Shanker was a vehement cold warrior for most of his life, and his adoption of neoliberal policies in the 1980s was consistent with his views on foreign policy. Shanker worked to build “free” teacher unions that supported U.S. allies against communism. His support for the Vietnam War and the coup in Chile, as well as his planting and promoting of people who were later exposed as government spies, are among many examples of his commitment to fighting communism.

After Shanker, the Unity Caucus remained a major obstacle to change, especially with its unbreakable allegiance to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Feldman’s UFT supported the imposition of charter schools, as well as standardized testing, and she continued the union’s neoconservative foreign policy by backing regime change in Iraq in 2003. After Feldman, Randi Weingarten supported the shift to mayoral control in New York City under Michael Bloomberg, which sped up the growth of charter schools as he also shut down hundreds of schools in majority non-white neighborhoods. Bloomberg’s policies and Mulgrew’s toothless resistance to them weakened union protections and led to the longest period without a contract for the UFT after the Great Recession.

Weingarten tried to maintain a progressive image by embracing Clintonite liberalism and through her efforts to diversify the top ranks of the AFT and the UFT. She supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. She became a campaign surrogate for her in 2015, after pushing the AFT to endorse Clinton without considering the possibility of endorsing Bernie Sanders, who would later be endorsed by the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

After the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) was formed and took over the CTU in 2010, its delegation and others protested Bill Gates when he was a keynote speaker at the AFT convention in 2010. Nevertheless, the tensions between the CTU and Weingarten eased after Weingarten supported the union’s 2012 strike, despite her enabling of many of the neoliberal policies the strike fought against. This shift allowed Weingarten to remain at the top of the AFT as Unity’s hegemony began to deteriorate under Michael Mulgrew’s regime and weaken her base of support in New York.

Unity’s defeat

When DeBlasio became mayor, the decline of the Unity Caucus temporarily stalled, although the opposition continued to grow and consolidate. In the 2016 union election, while the opposition nearly caught up with Unity at high schools and middle schools, the massive retiree vote and its consolidation around the caucus kept them in power. But Mulgrew’s disastrous leadership shifted the balance of forces over the past few years.

The past two contracts of the union had below inflation raises. In fact, the Occupational and Physical Therapists chapter of the union voted against the 2023 contract, only to be defeated in a re-vote imposed on them by Mulgrew. An even bigger loss for teachers came from a memorandum in the appendix of the 2018 contract. This memorandum was an extension of the healthcare for raises deal that was part of the union’s 2014 contract. The memorandum indicated the UFT’s support for limitless cuts to the city’s healthcare expenditures. It also became the basis of the union’s adoption of Medicare Advantage, a Medicare privatization scheme that funnels federal funds to the private insurance companies that drive the intolerable cruelties of the U.S. healthcare system.

While Medicare only covers 80 percent of the healthcare costs for retirees, the other 20 percent comes from the city and its contract with GHI-EmblemHealth. The switch to Medicare Advantage would shift the provision of healthcare to Aetna. While the costs will be lower for the city, Aetna can increase out of pocket costs while restricting the services retirees could receive, even forcing them to switch doctors based on in-network status. Private healthcare costs have been increasing for decades and the denial of authorization for services by Aetna would be especially detrimental to public sector retirees with the lowest incomes.

After a group of retirees organized around the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees successfully sued the city, the transition to Medicare Advantage was struck down by the Manhattan Supreme Court “permanently.” While New York City mayor Eric Adams’s administration is trying to get the decision overturned by the New York State Court of Appeals, the outrage around the effort to cut retiree healthcare has already led to a major defeat for Unity.

The only winners of the election were the Retiree Advocate and Fix Para Pay slates. Both groups are big tent rank-and-file formations that gained traction in response to Unity’s failings. While retirees have been radicalized by the cuts to Medicare, the paraprofessionals continue to suffer from the poverty wages they’ve been condemned to by the series of UFT contracts with sub-inflation raises. New Action and Independent Community of Educators, two of the older opposition caucuses, as well as the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), which is made up of younger teachers, supported the Retiree Advocate slate.

Prior to the retiree chapter elections, the three groups supported Ben Morgenroth against Unity in his unsuccessful campaign to become a pension board trustee in the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System. Morgenroth won about a third of the vote among active teachers and supervisors on May 8, but MORE’s abstention due to Morgenroth’s alleged Zionist commitments limited his potential.

What’s next?

Next spring the UFT will hold its union officer elections. The opposition is in a very advantageous position to overturn Unity’s decades-long hegemony, but will face all types of bureaucratic maneuvers by Unity to weaken them. While there is a relatively wide consensus against some of Unity’s neoliberal policies, the question of the union’s investment in Israeli assets remains the biggest point of contention inside the opposition.

MORE has been the most active group in favor of student protests against Israel’s genocide, opposing “US military aid for war crimes” early on. MORE and most of its members are younger than the other opposition caucuses in the union. Many of its hundreds of members are high school teachers, but the caucus also has a broader base of support inside the elementary schools relative to New Action and ICE. MORE forced a vote on a ceasefire resolution in November’s UFT delegate assembly meeting. When the resolution failed, with 43 percent voting in favor, MORE members walked out, joining a protest outside of the meeting. In February, MORE proposed an agenda amendment to discuss another ceasefire resolution. However, the amendment failed, despite 50 percent voting in favor. Agenda amendments require a two-thirds majority in the UFT delegate assembly, a  threshold introduced by Shanker decades ago to ensure Unity dominance.

Many older teachers are personally related to Holocaust victims or survivors, while others have direct personal or economic relations to Israel. Partially because of this, some in the union tragically embraced the Israeli government’s cynical use of the Holocaust, the Hamas attacks of October 7, and antisemitic attacks, as well as Islamophobic antiterrorism rhetoric, to justify its genocide in Gaza and apartheid in Israel and the West Bank. Others in the union took this further and engaged in bad faith attacks against MORE by trying to frame them as “pro-Hamas.” Meanwhile, New Action and Retiree Advocate took no public position in favor of MORE’s push for pro-Palestine resolutions. Nick Bacon of New Action, who serves on the executive board of the UFT, suggested that the efforts distracted from other union business.

On the other hand, Unity continues to maintain the UFT’s decades-long support for Zionism. Mulgrew forced out Queens Borough Office Representative Amy Arundell over her pro-Palestine tweets. Norm Scott, a former member of MORE who was elected with the Retiree Advocate slate, argues that Arundell was immensely popular among the ranks of the Queens chapter and that she was forced out of her position because of Mulgrew’s fears of her popularity outshining his own flawless record of selling out teachers. Mulgrew has previously removed the Brooklyn Borough Office Representative over similar fears.

Regardless of whether or not Arundell’s positions on Israel’s genocide were the main reason for her ouster, the fractures over the question suggest that it can be used by Unity to polarize the opposition. The UFT’s rank and file would benefit from holding open multi-caucus discussions for union members. These forums could both educate members about Israel’s long history of U.S.-funded crimes against humanity while also addressing the legitimate concerns of Jewish teachers against the rising tide of antisemitism.

The strategy of concessionary bargaining imposed on union members by Unity has run up against its limits. Unity’s diminishing power, however, won’t lead to the collapse of the caucus on its own. The opposition can win if it can unite around a new strategy of strike readiness to make up for the pay losses experienced in the past two decades by all school workers in the next contract, and continue the fight for healthcare for all school workers, retirees, and everyone else. If it does that,  the opposition stands a good chance of ending Unity’s hegemony next spring.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Hakan Yilmaz View All

Hakan Yilmaz is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Professional Staff Congress.